Friday, August 25 2006 @ 08:00 pm EDT
Contributed by: bobmoody
Pluto HAD to be demoted from planethood, and here is my explanation why. What the International Astronomical Union, (IAU) did on August 24, 2006, was to assign the new desciption of "dwarf planet" to Pluto, but that falls short of truly describing what this object is. PLUS, if you think that what Pluto is called today will be what it's still called in another 2 to 3 years, well, I wouldn't try holding my breath expecting that to stay the same either.
There are several things that must be taken into consideration to have any success at an accurate description of what Pluto should be called. Here are my offerings on what I believe it MIGHT be called at some point in the not-to-distant future. It's only my own speculation, but let me present my case anyway.
|A NASA artist's depiction of what Pluto and Charon may look like from the surface of one of Pluto's newest pair of smaller moons. Pluto is at right center, Charon to Pluto's right, one of the two new moons at the left of Pluto and the imagined appearance of the surface of the other new moon in the foreground.|
Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. Clyde was a Kansas farm boy who built his own reflector telescope and studied the planets by making carefully detailed pencil sketches of them. In 1928 he decided to send some of his drawings to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ. He was both pleased and proud when he received a reply from Lowell saying they liked his pictures and he would be offered a job at Lowell if he could get to Flagstaff. I read somewhere that he left his farm home with less than a dollar in change in his pockets, bound by rail for northern Arizona.
Visual observations of Uranus and Neptune showed mathematical irregularities in their orbits in the late 19th century. The math hinted that something out beyond Neptune's orbit was the culprit. When Clyde arrived at Lowell Observatory, he was put straight to work on the problem of trying to find whatever may have been out there producing those minute little "tugs" on Neptune and Uranus. It would take him nearly 2 years to find it, but on February 18, 1930, he found his elusive quarry.
I was fortunate enough to have attended a presentation given by Clyde Tombaugh in 1988 at that year's Texas Star Party. Clyde was speaking on whether there might possibly be a 10th planet out there somewhere in the frozen outskirts of the solar system. Although in his 80's at the time, he was still a skilled an interesting speaker. Clyde began by telling everyone of his discovery of the 9th planet while using the 13" astrographic telescope at Lowell Observatory. This instrument didn't allow for visual observations, but instead it took images of the sky. Since planets move in their orbits around the Sun, any given image taken on any one night needed another image made of that same area a few nights later. Then the two images were set up in an instrument called a blink comparator which allowed the investigator to carefully examine the starfield with nothing more than his eyes to see if there were any "stars" that had moved from one night to the next. How time-consuming and tedious would you think such a job might be? And yet, this was how Clyde found Pluto.
But Tombaugh didn't stop there. The mathematical studies of the inconsistencies in Neptune's and Uranus's orbit had indicated that whatever was out there should be approximately 6 times the size of Earth. Pluto was MUCH to small to have been that suspect object, and so, for another 15 years, Clyde Tombaugh kept up his steady and monotonous search. Pretty much everyone felt there HAD to be something else out there, something considerably larger than Pluto's 1,300 mile diameter. Hearing Tombaugh give such a vivid, detailed description of "blinking" roughly 14,000,000 stars (by his own estimates), and then winding up his presentation by stating emphatically, "There is NO other planet beyond Pluto, no "Planet X", or I would have found it." That statement gave me all I needed to accept his word on the matter, but I really have to wonder what he would have said about the demotion of Pluto to "dwarf planet".
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